Saturday, 10 October 2015

Wertzone Classics: The Wire - Season 3 (HD)

On 20 October 2008 I reviewed the third season of The Wire. I recently completed rewatching the season thanks to the recent HD re-release, courtesy of HBO, and here's the original review with some updated thoughts.

With its third year, The Wire heads back to the streets and unfinished business. As with the second year, the third season opens up another dimension of the city, this time City Hall and the civil and police administration, but the focus is squarely back on the Barksdale organisation and Lt. Daniels' unit trying to bring them down and finish the job begun back in Season 1.

Season 3 opens with Avon Barksdale still in jail, but his parole hearing is coming up. His friend and collaborator Stringer Bell has guided the crew through some lean times and formed a 'co-op' with several other gangs which has led to them making some serious money but at the cost of sharing each other's turf. However, a new player, Marlo Stanfield, is on the way up and is not interested in sharing his territory with anyone else. The stage is set for a series of bloody showdowns and bodies dropping on the streets, to the growing discontent of the police. Lt. Daniels and his unit are forced to drop their investigation into Bell (begun at the end of the second season) to concentrate on the war, unaware that the two are connected. This war is complicated by the re-emergence of Omar Little, who has sworn to bring down Bell for manipulating him into shooting an innocent man (in the second season) and for the murder of Omar's lover back in the first season.

At the same time, an ambitious white city councilman, Tommy Carcetti, is planning to run for mayor, although his prospects in a city with a majority black population seem poor. Connecting these two storylines is a highly controversial initiative launched by police Major Colvin to move the drug dealers off the street corners into three abandoned city blocks where the police will turn a blind eye to their activities so they can concentrate more on murders and crime prevention elsewhere. The 'Hamsterdam' storyline, apparently inspired by the 'legalise drugs' movement, is a stunning and surprisingly even-handed piece of social commentary. There is also an ongoing subplot following the attempts of former Barksdale enforcer Dennis 'Cutty' Wise to go straight after spending fourteen years in prison.

Season 3 is tighter than the second season, as it is able to link the storylines together more effectively. The trials of the Barksdale gang were largely removed and separate from events on the docks, creating a disjointed second year that only started coming together towards the end. The new characters, both on the streets and in the city hall, are also more directly tied to the storylines that have gone before and are stronger as a result.

Thematically, the idea behind Season 3 appears to be that of failed reform. The failure of the city's drug prevention strategies encourage some radical, out-of-the-box thinking from Major Colvin. Whilst his policy is initially successful, it leads to a whole host of knock-on effects which are beyond his powers to address, and give a rather depressing impression that, indeed, no one man can make a difference to the system. The breathtaking cynicism and corruption of the political wing of the city is depicted, with Carcetti determined to reform the system from the inside, again with apparently little hope of success. Stringer Bell's attempts to reform himself and his friend Avon on his release from prison into respectable businessmen provides the season with its main narrative spine, but again does not have a happy ending. That said, there are moments of hope, with Cutty's attempts to go straight finally garnering some success and McNulty's attempts to straighten out his personal life ending on a positive note.

The ending of the season seems to be a little more definitive than the prior two, but the writers take care to leave enough loose ends untied to be pursued into the fourth year, with the candidates for mayor squaring up, several of the gang leaders still very much at large and the police unit once again finding themselves heading off in separate directions.

The Wire: Season 3 (*****) follows up on the first two by being just as dramatically intense with some superb characterisation, brilliant acting and some finely-judged moments of comedy to balance the darkness elsewhere. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Updated Thoughts

Rewatching the third season of The Wire, it's impossible to see its message as being anything other than "Be careful what you wish for..."

The season is dominated by McNulty's dogged pursuit of Stringer Bell, his determination to finish the work begun back in Season 1 when Avon was arrested. Avon's unexpected early release halfway through this season only reinforces McNulty's mission. On an initial viewing - especially knowing that David Simon thought there was a good chance this was the final season of the show and wanted to bring at least some resolution to things - this worked well. On a reviewing, knowing what happens next, it's downright brilliant.

Stringer and Avon's downfall paves the way for the rise to power of Marlo Stanfield, a scarily focused and utterly relentless psychopath lacking even the facade of honour and civility that Avon had and the business common sense possessed by Stringer. This makes you want either the detail to fail in their mission to defeat the Barksdale crew, or for them to hold off just long enough for Avon's people to win the street war. Of course, it doesn't happen. More tellingly, it's interesting to see Avon's growing respect for Marlo and his tactics over the course of the season, seeing something of himself (perhaps incorrectly) in the young Stanfield. This explains Avon's decision to help Marlo from behind bars in later episodes, which on a first viewing came a bit more out of left field.

Foreknowledge of later seasons also makes other story points resonate much more strongly: Cutty's personal odyssey from criminal enforcer to boxing mentor, Colvin's desire to give something back to the community (and not just for the sake of his pension, as he protests) and, most prominently, Prez's ill-advised mistake in the final episodes which completes his police story arc begun in the first season and sets him on the road to the schools, and the tragically powerful fourth season.

Season 3 of The Wire, already one of its strongest years, improves immeasurably on a reviewing and is also enhanced by its presentation in HD. If you thought Hamsterdam at its worst was hard enough viewing before, it's got nothing on when every nook and cranny is shown up in widescreen.

The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 16

Despite being part of the genre of the fantastical and the weird, epic fantasy is often rooted in the real. It riffs off real history, real events and real people, sometimes to the point of being set in Europe with just a few names changed, a dragon dropping by and magic being used to blow up Versailles. Other fantasies employ mythologies from real-life sources as their main influences and inspirations


Back in 1950 Jack Vance published The Dying Earth, creating the entire Dying Earth subgenre of fiction (which later gave us The Book of the New Sun and Mark Charan Newton's recent Legends of the Red Sun, amongst others) and the Dungeons and Dragons magic system in one fell swoop. For an encore he wrote many of the greatest science fiction and fantasy novels of all time, such as the Demon Princes series and Big Planet.

Despite both a prolific and greatly accomplished career, Vance had avoided the epic fantasy subgenre. He wasn't one for writing huge battle scenes, or massive doorstop novels, and his sometimes whimsical humour and astonishingly accomplished dialogue seemed better deployed in science fiction. But then he got a good idea for a fantasy series, and ran with it.

The Lyonesse Trilogy was published in three volumes: Suldrun's Garden (1982), The Green Pearl (1985) and Madouc (1990). They are among Vance's longer novels, but still short by modern standards and the entire trilogy is available in omnibus. The trilogy may represent, as a completed work, one of the most accomplished works of fantasy since The Lord of the Rings.

The trilogy is set in the Elder Isles, an archipelago located in what is now the Bay of Biscay, off the west coast of France, the north coast of Spain and the south coast of Ireland. Much of the action takes place on Hybras, the largest of the islands (about the size of Ireland itself), which is falling into war due to the hostile actions of Casmir, King of Lyonesse, who desires to rule the entire island. Casmir's imprisonment of Aillas, one of the heirs to the throne of Troicinet, sets in motion a sequence of events as the young, canny Aillas seeks revenge both for his own part and also to bring justice to the isles.

So far, so standard. But Vance layers in some interesting elements to the story. He disdains violence and instead prefers depicting his characters engaging in formidable battles of wits. He also mirrors the struggle between Casmir and Aillas with the battle between their respective wizardly allies, Tamurello and Shimrod, arbitrated by Murgen, who seeks to preserve the magical balance of power over the isles. The multiple kingdoms of the Elder Isles are depicted well, and in the Ska, violent raiders from the northern isles who consider themselves a breed apart, George R.R. Martin (a huge fan of Vance) may have found the inspiration for his ironborn.

The most notable thing about the series is its clash between the weird and whimsical (fairies, magic, erudite magicians battling with wits and cunning) and the mundane and ordinary (court politics, assassinations), a clash that epic fantasy is uniquely positioned to explore but rarely does so, and certainly not as entertainingly and intelligently as in this trilogy, one of fantasy's masterworks.


Katherine Kerr began writing Daggerspell, which she envisaged as a short story, in 1982. She completed that same story in 2009 with the publication of the fifteenth novel in the series. The complete saga, The Deverry Cycle, tells the story of a group of people who are reincarnated again and again several times across centuries in the fictional kingdom of Deverry.

Whilst Deverry and its neighbours are fictional, Kerr deeply rooted the story in Celtic history and mythology: Deverry was in fact founded by refugees from our world trying to escape the Roman invasion of Gaul and were transported to the fantasy world by a sorcerer. Whilst the series proceeds in a different direction afterwards, the Celtic roots of the story remain prominent and explored in greater depth by Kerr, who was frustrated with any Western European-leaning fantasy being labelled "Celtic" even when it had nothing to do with that period of history or group of people.

The history of Deverry unfolded over four distinct sub-series: The Deverry Saga (1984-90), The Westlands Saga (1991-94), The Dragon Mage Trilogy (1997-2000) and The Silver Wyrm (2006-09). These moved backwards and forwards in time through the history of Deverry and its neighbours, but Kerr used the conceit of characters who are born and reborn in different bodies and times to explore events of historical interest, as well as the destinies of characters who interact with each other again and again as different people. Combined with some interesting uses of linguistics, these factors make the Deverry Cycle arguably the most significant work of modern epic fantasy to employ Celtic tropes and motifs.

The Lions of Al-Rassan

Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy career got off to a pretty amazing start: in 1974 he was asked by Christopher Tolkien to assist in the editing of The Silmarillion for publication. In fact, Kay's writing skills were called upon to finesse a couple of chapters that J.R.R. Tolkien had not touched in decades, making him the only person other a Tolkien to work on an officially-published Middle-earth book in a writing capacity (if only of a very minor nature).

After that heady start, Kay worked on his first fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, which was published in 1984-86. This concerned a group of students from the University of Toronto who are drawn into Fionavar, the First of All Worlds, which is under threat from dark forces. The experiences they have there are profound and shape who they are, with ripples which extend into the quasi-sequel Ysabel (2007). Although rooted in mythology, the trilogy is more overtly an original fantasy creation.

With his next novel, Tigana (1990), Kay established what would be his more familiar writing style of taking a real location and place in history and writing a novel (not a long series) about how it is changed and influenced by the addition of fantastical elements. Tigana is heavily influenced by Italian history but the fantastical conceit is that the name, history and indeed soul of the country have been magically removed from the mind of its inhabitants. Only a band of rebels led by those who remember the country before its occupation by an enemy power can remember the Tigana that was, and therefore are fighting for the very existence of their nation in a more literal fashion than is normal in fantasy. Kay interlaces themes of love, redemption and tragedy into his story, disdaining (as he usually does) war and violence as the primary means of solving dilemmas.

These themes continued into A Song for Arbonne (1993), a novel which does a similar thing for Renaissance Provence. But it was his 1995 novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan, which solidified things. Kay's works now took place on a world pretty much identical to our own, with each novel mirroring real events more explicitly than previously. The Lions of Al-Rassan, perhaps Kay's greatest masterpiece, expertly combines the stories of El Cid, ibn Ammar and the Reconquista of medieval Spain. Two great warriors, their love for the same woman, their loyalties and their passion for the land of Al-Rassan (also called Esperana) vividly play out across a beautifully-described backdrop.

Kay would continue to explore similar themes in later works: the Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998-2000) is based on Byzantium under Justinian I; The Last Light of the Sun (2004) is centred on England at the time of King Alfred the Great; Under Heaven (2010) is based on the Tang Dynasty of China and its end in the bloody An Shi Rebellion; and River of Stars (2013) is based on Song Dynasty of several centuries later and its transformation in the Jin-Song Wars. His next novel, Children of Earth and Sky, will be published in 2016.

Kay is, arguably, the greatest fantasy writer at taking a real time and place, repurposing it for the purposes of fantasy and doing so whilst still saying something of importance.

The Roof of Voyaging

Published in 1996, The Roof of Voyaging is an unusual fantasy novel. It's the first volume of a trilogy, The Navigator Kings, but Garry Kilworth throws a lot of the normal epic fantasy rules out of the window and moves the action to the other side of the planet (culturally and literally). The action takes place in the Pacific Ocean, deeply rooted in Polynesian mythology and history. This is an epic fantasy which riffs off the legends and past of the myriad peoples of Polynesia, in many ways completely alien to European sensibilities, with scores of gods and a richly-described culture threatened by the invasion of Celts from the south: in a bizarre twist, New Zealand has been swapped out for Britain.

The result is an often barmy and irreverent fantasy trilogy which has huge amounts of fun in doing things completely different to the conventional and tells a hugely entertaining story whilst doing so.

Ash: A Secret History

Published in 2000, Ash: A Secret History is a colossal novel that is part historical novel, part fantasy, part science fiction, part modern thriller and completely bizarre. It's set in France in 1476 and starts off chronicling the misadventures of the Lion Azure, a mercenary company led by Ash. Ash is mired in a political attempt to remove her from command of the mercenaries (a female warrior captain setting uncomfortable precedents) but this is soon superseded when the armies of Carthage invade Europe en mass from the south. In another storyline set in the present, bemused historians are trying to decipher the text of Ash and are constantly bewildered about references to things that never happened.

The result is a novel deeply mired in the traditions of historical and epic fantasy - battles, sieges, political skullduggery - but which brings on board influences from science fiction, alternate history and weird fantasy in an unusual but highly compelling blend.

Kushiel's Dart

Published in 2001, Kushiel's Dart was the debut novel by Jacqueline Carey. It's an interesting blend of genres, mixing some epic fantasy tropes with different cultural groups and religions battling over a continent, with alternate history: the continent is Europe, although the country names and history are different. The books also employ a lot of eroticism, with politics and warfare often assisted (or negated) by seduction or desire on the part of the players involved.

There are nine books in the series (collectively called Kushiel's Legacy), divided into three trilogies (the Phedre, Imriel and Moirin series), spanning over a hundred years in the history of Terre D'Ange (a fantasised version of France) and its neighbours.

The Cardinal's Blades/His Majesty's Dragon

More recently, fantasy has played around with much more straightforward and dramatic variations to real-world history to create something interesting. Two prominent recent fantasy series used much more recent historical periods as their base setting, but with some dragons thrown in to spice things up.

French author Pierre Pevel's Les Lames du Cardinal (Cardinal's Blades) trilogy (2007-10) is set in 1633 Paris and sees an irregular group of soldiers and investigators re-constituted as an elite, deniable group working directly for the formidable Cardinal Richelieu of France. Historical events such as the Thirty Years' War play a role, but the series deviates from history due to the presence and existence of dragons, formidably dangerous (if rare) creatures. The books mix fantasy tropes deriving from the existence of the dragons with swashbuckling derring-do, sword fights in the back alleys of Paris and political intrigue between Richelieu and his enemies.

Far better known is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which spans nine novels (2006-16), starting with His Majesty's Dragon. The series has a fairly straightforward premise - it's the Napoleonic Wars "BUT WITH DRAGONS" - which the author initially seems to treat simplistically, but then engages with in more depth as the series continues. The books feature both Britain and France deploying dragon mounts as weapons of war and means of transportation during the war, but their mutual use of dragons creates a stalemate with the war more or less proceeding as it did in real life. Variations from established history occur when African dragons are used to end the slave trade (with devastating effects) and it is discovered that the Chinese employ dragons as equals and even superiors. The use of dragons in this setting is initially absorbed into the historical status quo but is later used to spin history off in different directions.

The use of real history and mythology in fantasy would continue, and one author would take those inspirations to create the longest and most successful, outright epic fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien.

Wertzone Classics: The Wire - Season 2 (HD)

On 14 October 2008 I published a review of the second season of The Wire, HBO's masterpiece about the corrupting effects of American institutions (political, legal and criminal) and the destruction of the American labouring classes. Here's an updated re-review based on the new HD release of the series on Blu-Ray.

When The Wire started it was easy to see it as just another cop show, until its overwhelmingly high quality lifted it onto another level. After all, the narrative of Season 1 was simply that of cops versus drug dealers, with some murky political dealings on the side but these were left relatively unexplored. Season 2, however, shows creator David Simon's real plan: he is trying to craft the definitive portrayal of the turn-of-the-century American city. Like a Grand Theft Auto game (only with less gunplay and more, infinitely better dialogue), progressing onto Season 2 'unlocks' another chunk of the city, this time the docks and a new cast of characters, including Eastern European criminals, the unions and their families, and introduces an important new thread to the tapestry of the show.

At the end of Season 1, Lt. Daniels's unit successfully cracked the Barksdale case, but political infighting between different police departments saw arrests made prematurely. Whilst Avon and D'Angelo were sent down, the evidence against Avon was flimsy and his time inside was limited, whilst back on the street the formidable Stringer Bell has been put in charge. Meanwhile, Daniels has been booted down to work in the evidence lock-up and McNulty has been sent over to the harbour patrol, to his extreme annoyance, whilst Freamon and Bunt are working in homicide. When McNulty fishes a dead girl out of the harbour and port authority police officer Beadie Russell uncovers thirteen corpses in a freight container, the police's attention is turned to the harbour. This garners the interest of Commander Valchek, who is anxious to bring down the head of the stevedores' union, Frank Sobotka, after his union raises more cash for the local church's new stained-glass windows than Valchek's.

Season 2 of The Wire sprawls slightly more than the first season, a result of the story having to incorporate a large number of new characters and locations whilst at the same time keeping tabs on the characters from Season 1. The project gangs, Stringer Bell, Omar and so forth are firmly on the back-burner for the season, with their story forming a subplot that clears up some loose ends from the first season and sets up the events of Season 3, where they return to prominence. Whilst characters such as Omar and Bubs get limited screen time as a result compared to the first year, at least they don't vanish altogether. Luckily, the new characters are a good match for the originals. Union politics and the gradual loss of American industry and hands-on labour are covered in a fascinating manner. Frank Sobotka (played by Chris Bauer) is the character whom the season's themes centre on, showing how an essentially decent man who values loyalty and fair play is gradually morally eroded, ground down by the city institutions and effectively destroyed, whilst the start of the same process is shown happening to his nephew Nicky (Pablo Schreiber). On the law-enforcement side, Amy Ryan makes a good impression as Beadie Russell, the working beat officer who is pulled into the detective unit formed to investigate the port situation and finds herself out of her depth, until she steps up. On the street side of things, the fascinating character of Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) is introduced very late in the season, as more pieces are set up for the third year.

The Wire remains dramatically intense, with several deaths (one in particular) and shocking plot developments meaning you don't know who is safe, or who can be trusted. The show's black sense of humour is retained (the entire investigation starts due to a personal feud between Valchek and Sobotka over whose union gives more money to their local church), the fascinating investigative tactics used by the police are expanded upon and the increasingly bleak portrayal of the modern American city is balanced by a few decent characters and moments of hope.

The Wire: Season 2 (*****) takes slightly longer to get going than Season 1, but remains gripping, intelligent and adult television and the climax is much harsher. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Updated Thoughts

If you want to start a flame war between usually reasoned, intelligent fans of The Wire, you can challenge them on what is the weaker season: the second or the fifth. The results can be quite interesting. Of course, they're both fantastic, but I think most would agree they're a tiny notch below the other three in quality. The move away from the established cast in Season 1, the introduction of a lot of new characters with time limitations on fleshing them all out and the lack of resolution to the storyline about the Greek and his gang of criminals are all issues when compared to the first season's flawless pacing, characterisation and plot construction.

At least, they are on an initial viewing. On a re-watch, the season improves from being pretty damn good with a few minor issues to being almost the equal of those around it. Knowing how the Greek and his dealings play into the bigger story of Baltimore from the later seasons helps a lot, as it introduces more of an element of tragedy into proceedings: if the cops had arrested the Greek and his gang, a lot of what happened in the seasons that followed would not have been possible. Similarly, the elimination of D'Angelo feels like a mere tying-up of a loose end from the first season, but in fact sets up a series of plot points and events in Season 3 that will have huge ramifications.

In fact, few elements are not improved by a rewatch. James Ransome's performance as Ziggy still feels a little belaboured in some scenes, but beyond that, this is a collection of highly watchable, smartly-written, brilliantly-acted and often unexpectedly hilarious episodes.

The move to HD also benefits this season immensely, with so much of the action taking place in huge industrial wastelands, on container ships and against other, large-scale backdrops which are improved by the move to widescreen.

The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 9 October 2015

THE X-FILES complete series Blu-Ray set announced

The X-Files is finally getting its much-rumoured complete series Blu-Ray release in December, apparently to tie in with the release of the new series in January 2016.

All 202 episodes are included in the box set. All have been digitally remastered and re-formatted for widescreen, taken from the original film stock. Fox have been working on this for at least two years, quietly releasing HD versions of episodes on reruns, Netflix and to foreign markets, apparently testing audience reception and reactions. This is in contrast to Star Trek: The Next Generation's slow, labourious release on Blu-Ray over more than three years.

The previous HD versions of the episodes released to television had some issues, most notably that some tracking and establishing shots of famous locations such as Washington D.C. were sourced from public archives and thus weren't re-mastered for HD. It's unclear if these have been fixed. There were also issues with some effects shots being upscaled rather than re-rendered from scratch. The X-Files, being more about mood and tone, has very few major effects sequences, but whilst that means such cost-cutting measures aren't hugely noticeable, they also would have been quite cheap to properly fix. It's unclear if the Blu-Ray editions will resolve these issues as well.

Some fans may also be a little bit upset that the two X-Files theatrical movies are not included, and neither is the show's spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, or the companion series Millennium, which is set in the same universe but only tangentially related. Given those show's low ratings and relative obscurity, a "mega-complete" franchise edition is probably the only hope either have for a HD remastering, but it's not happening this time around.

There will be a ton of special features, a mixture of new material and old stuff from the existing DVD sets.

No final price has been set for the box set, but I suspect in the UK it will be in the £150-£200 ball park. For the more budget-conscious fan, the seasons are also being released individually on the same day.

The new six-part X-Files mini-series debuts in the United States on 26 January 2016.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

THE LAST KINGDOM gets UK airdate

The Last Kingdom, the BBC drama based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories, will debut on BBC2 on Thursday 22 October at 9pm.

For unclear reasons, the drama is airing first in the United States starting this Saturday on BBC America. The drama has also received a massive amount of marketing support from BBC America, including an excellent website and plenty of trailers and featurettes. The BBC press for the show in the UK has been virtually non-existent in comparison. The airdate and time is also not particularly exciting: this should really be a prime-time Sunday night show airing on BBC1, given its clearly large budget and appeal.

Despite the BBC's baffling (but not unprecedented, as anyone who can recall the shabby handling of Rome can attest) treatment of the show, it's building up some good advance press in the States, with Variety giving the first episode a glowing review and proclaiming it the equal of Vikings and much better than the similarly-themed Bastard Executioner. Den of Geek also has a positive review.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

FAR CRY: PRIMAL announced

Ubisoft have announced Far Cry: Primal, a side-game in their monstrously popular Far Cry series of first-person shooters. Like Blood Dragon, this isn't the next full game in the core series, but a stand-alone interlude which experiments with different ideas and mechanics to the main game series.

In this case, Primal takes place at the dawn of human history with you playing the member of a hunter-gather clan. You fight rival clans and hunt sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths. There are no guns, vehicles, radio towers or, apparently, conversations in modern English, all of which the previous games in the series relied on. Instead the game will double down on the crafting, hunting, stealth, melee combat and use of bows that were side-features in Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4.

It's definitely a bold and unusual move for a huge, AAA franchise, and a welcome one for a FPS series that used to defy expectations and be more experimental before it became so massively successful.

The game will be released in February 2016 on console, followed by the PC version in March.


Bantam (in the USA) and HarperCollins Voyager (in the UK) released A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms today.

This book is a collection of George R.R. Martin's three Dunk and Egg novellas, short novels spanning a period of time beginning eighty-nine years before the events of A Game of Thrones and expected to conclude approximately fifty years later. The series chronicles the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a hedge knight who rises from obscurity to great fame and high office, and his squire "Egg", who is more than he seems.

The collection consists of The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010). Martin is working on the fourth story in the series, which has the working (but not final) title of The She-Wolves of Winterfell, but he decided some time ago to rework the story. It will not be released until after The Winds of Winter comes out. A working title of the planned fifth story in the series, The Village Hero, has also been disclosed. Martin has said there may be up to a dozen of these stories in total. Existing Song of Ice and Fire characters have appeared in the Dunk and Egg books, such as a very young Walder Frey, whilst Aemon Targaryen has been mentioned, but as the novellas progress and get closer to the present other characters are likely to appear. Fan speculation is high that the final story will take place at Summerhall on the fateful night of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen's birth.

Of course, in the meantime Martin does have two rather large novels to finish.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Opening title sequence for THE LAST KINGDOM

BBC America has released the opening title sequence to The Last Kingdom, a new ongoing historical series based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series of novels. The first season of the show is expected to cover (more or less) the first two books in the series.

The series debuts on 10 October on BBC America. Bafflingly, no airdate has been given for the UK, where it is expected to air on BBC2.

Patrick Rothfuss's books to be adapted into many things

Patrick Rothfuss has struck a deal with Lionsgate over his Kingkiller Chronicles books, The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear and the forthcoming Doors of Stone. The deal will involve feature films, a TV series and a video game.

The exact details of the deal remain to be hammered out, but will include both films and a TV series that will adapt the books, as well as potentially telling new stories in the world of Termerant. Robert Lawrence, who worked on Clueless, Rock Star and The Last Castle, will executive produce the project.

The level of Rothfuss's involvement also remains to be seen. Rothfuss is finishing off The Doors of Stone for (hopefully) a 2016 release, so will be free of any immediate, announced obligations in the near future. Rothfuss also picked up some recent video game writing experience when he contributed characters, quests and dialogue to inXile's forthcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera.

It's unlikely we will see anything on screen before (at the earliest) late 2017/early 2018, but the level of commitment from Lionsgate is seriously impressive.

The news also confirms that the Kingkiller books have sold just over 10 million copies, making it easily the most successful debut epic fantasy series of the past decade.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 15

One of the criticisms levelled against epic fantasy and some of its trappings - worldbuilding, magic systems, maps, constructed languages - is that it runs counter to the more traditional idea of fantasy as being strange, exotic, weird. East of the Sun and West of the Moon is not a point on a map (to quote Pratchett expert Stephen Briggs) and knowing the metaphysical rules that allow a princess to be put into suspended animation for a century only to be woken up by a passing prince is a bit unnecessary to the story at hand.

There's also the fact that an awful lot of fantasy can feel like a history of the real Middle Ages but with dragons and fireballs replacing research. Starting in the 1980s, some authors wrote books that looked like epic fantasy and had many of the same trappings, but had rather different settings and were combined with other genres to create more interesting and original stories.

The Gunslinger

As a child, Stephen King developed a fascination with the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (1855) by Robert Browning. This was one of a number of poems and poetic works that would stick in the minds of various science fiction and fantasy authors, to be extensively quoted later on (see also The Second Combing by W.B. Yeats and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot). King's take was rather more literal: a man named Roland seeks out a dark tower. Working out exactly what that meant took King over a decade, with him writing down the first version of the short story known as The Gunslinger in 1970. He finally published it in 1978. A series of four further short stories followed, with them being collected together and published as one volume in 1982.

When The Gunslinger appeared, King was already a rising star. He'd published Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone and the novel that had arguably defined him more than any other, The Stand. The Stand is itself a work of epic fantasy using modern American characters to stand in for archetypal fantasy heroes and the destruction of the modern world through a viral epidemic as its backstory. North America itself stands in for a fantasy landscape, with Las Vegas serving as the novel's Mordor. The novel was hugely successful, but some readers felt that there was a lot more to its mysteries - such as the enigmatically evil Randall Flagg - than King revealed on the page.

In the back of King's mind (perhaps influenced by Moorcock) had been the idea of a multiverse, a layering of fictional universes in which different stories could take place but where all these stories could intersect with them. What he lacked was a way of tying them together. The Gunslinger, with its ambiguous setting and the ability of its characters to pass between shifting planes of reality, provided that mechanism.

Seven more volumes in The Dark Tower series followed The Gunslinger: The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991), Wizard and Glass (1997), Wolves of the Calla (2003), Song of Susannah (2004) and The Dark Tower (2004), along with a stand-alone spin-off novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012). The novels focus on Roland Deschain, a knight and gunslinger who pursues a mysterious "man in black" across a desert, gathering allies along the way. There are hints of a post-apocalyptic world, strengthened by references to The Stand and its characters. Real-life figures, including (controversially) King himself, make an appearance. Many other novels King wrote during this period tied into the main work: The Eyes of the Dragon (1987) is King's only "traditional" epic fantasy novel and features the return of Randall Flagg and references to The Dark Tower. Black House, Hearts in Atlantis, Rose Madder and Insomnia (among others) also feature blatant references to the series. In fact, some King fans suggest that all of King's work (even the non-supernatural thrillers like Misery) is set in the Dark Tower multiverse and they may be right.

Cloud Warrior

Patrick Tilley had already had an interesting writing career before he started writing his magnum opus in 1983. His first novel, Fade Out (1976), had been an SF novel about the arrival of an alien spacecraft on Earth that drained the planet of electricity, throwing us back into the Middle Ages. His second, Mission (1981), had asked what would happen if Jesus turned up in present-day New York City.

For his next work, Tilley decided to fuse together Mad Max, Shogun, The Lord of the Rings and the American Western because, well, why not? The resulting series was The Amtrak Wars, the kind of inspired, crazy genre mash-up that we don't seen nearly enough of in the genre.

The books open in 2989. The Old World was destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse (which took place in, er, November 2015) but a group of American industrialists and billionaires survived in a massive underground shelter beneath Houston, Texas. With the surface world too radioactive to survive on, they expanded the underground facilities into a vast subterranean empire, the Amtrak Federation. Emerging centuries later, they found to their horror that the surface world had been taken over by "Mutes", the mutated survivors and descendants of less fortunate Americans who'd had to struggle to survive after the thermonuclear war. The Federation initially waged war against the Mutes to retake the surface world, but ran into problems when it was discovered that the Mutes had somehow gained mastery of the elements and magic. Complicating matters further was the presence of a large nation of descendants of Japanese survivors on the eastern seaboard, Ne-Issan.

The books chronicle the development of the Talisman Prophecy, which the Mutes believe will see the destruction of the Amtrak Federation, and the role played in it by four young people from both the Federation and the Clan M'Call of the Mutes. The books are also notable for their vivid action scenes and extraordinarily complicated politics and schemes-within-schemes developed by the central character, the Machiavellian antihero Steve Brickman.

Six volumes were published in the series: Cloud Warrior (1983), First Family (1985), Iron Master (1987), Blood River (1988), Death-Bringer (1989) and Earth-Thunder (1990). The sixth volume ended on something of a cliffhanger, intended to lead into a sequel series set 15-20 years later when the Talisman Prophecy came to fruition. However, Tilley chose to move onto other projects. There was a renewed attempt to continue the series in 2007 with a new trilogy, whilst an Australian production company licensed the film rights in 2010 with a view to making a movie called The Talisman Prophecy, but neither came to fruition. Still, the series remains remarkable for the ease with which Tilley brings together a myriad number of sources and ideas into a coherent world and story.

The Wizards and the Warriors

Few could accuse New Zealand novelist Hugh Cook of lacking vision. In 1986 he published The Wizards and the Warriors, the first novel in a series he called Chronicles of an Age of Darkness. Cook's plan was for this series to run to twenty volumes, to be followed by two series of equal length, Chronicles of an Age of Wrath and Chronicles of an Age of Heroes. The sixty-book plan was overly ambitious despite Cook's high speed of output, but ultimately he only finished the first half of the first series (ten novels in six years) before it was halted due to lack of sales.

Unusually, the series was not one massive epic story. Instead, it was more episodic with some novels taking place simultaneously alongside others, with events varying depending on who was witnessing or instigating them. The books used unreliable narrators and a prose style that could vary significantly from volume to volume. The books also eschewed a lot of epic fantasy tropes, with the books not following a set chronology and not having a central hero or villain. The books featured whimsical humour and influences from sword and sorcery as well as planetary romance. Some books were reminiscent of the later New Weird movement (China Mieville was a big fan). Some books were more like roleplaying games, with Paizo Publishing reprinting one of the volumes, The Walrus and the Warwolf, as part of its Planet Stories line.

After the series concluded (prematurely) Cook published several more books before sadly passing away in 2008 from cancer. His massive mega-series was never finished, but its breadth, vision and general batshit insanity remain intriguing (and echoes, intended or not, of the tonal variations, dark humour and continent-skipping structure can be found in Steven Erikson's Malazan novels).

Wolf in Shadow

We have already looked at Legend, David Gemmell's first novel, published in 1984. Gemmell subsequently produced several more books in the same setting and he was soon being pigenoholed as a heroic fantasy author.

In 1987 he shifted that perception with Wolf in Shadow (sometimes published under the title The Jerusalem Man). This was a post-apocalyptic novel, set in a world devastated by an unspecific event known as "The Fall". An episode later in the novel has the titular Jon Shannow, a gun-wielding antihero, discovering the wreck of the Titanic, indicating the action is set on the now-bone-dry floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The novel and its two sequels featured post-apocalyptic tropes combined with fantasy, particularly with the introduction of the Sipstrassi or Stones of Power, items with magical capabilities.

The core series featuring Jon Shannow is among Gemmell's most popular works, but it was later expanded with a duology set in ancient Greece and featuring Alexander the Great. The duology initially appears to be historical fiction, but the introduction of the Sipstrassi linked it to the Jon Shannow books and hinted at a grander, weirder scheme in place. Gemmell later returned to his Drenai setting and several new fantasy worlds before concluding his career with pure historical fiction, so it is unclear how this series would have continued.


Released in 1989, the roleplaying game Shadowrun has a central premise which it executes very well: epic fantasy meets cyberpunk.

The roleplaying game and its attendant video games and novels postulate an existential catastrophe which takes place in 2012. The world is transformed, with some of the human population transformed into fantasy races like elves, dwarves, trolls and orks. Magic also suddenly comes into existence, other planes of existence are revealed to exist, allowing demonic entities and dragons to enter our world. Despite widespread death and destruction resulting from the catastrophe, humanity manages to survive and prosper, with technological advancement proceeding and the new races integrated into human culture.

The roleplaying game is set fifty years further down the line, with massive mega-corporations controlling the world and people surviving best they can. The game focuses on "shadowrunners", freelance agents who act as corporate spies, soldiers of fortune and mercenaries, working for themselves or corporations or underground resistance groups.

In Shadowrun's case, the mashing together of epic fantasy races, tropes and magic with science fiction and cyberpunk is wildly successful, bringing both a sense of fun from simply colliding the two worlds together and also allowing the creators to investigate themes of technology versus spirituality in unusual ways. After a lengthy period of relative quite, Shadowrun recently exploded back into popularity with the release of three new video games, Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall and Hong Kong. Its future seems bright.

The mashing up of fantasy with SF and other genres has generated interesting results, although success and sales have often been patchy when this has been attempted. The once exception is historical fiction, which epic fantasy has riffed on with frequent and ongoing success.